Many of us have been there. The kids are fussing. It's a visiting priest who has a new accent that everyone is learning. Your spouse isn't there (sick, deployed, work schedule, etc.) to help play defense at the other end of the pew. You spilled coffee on your shirt but didn't have time to change it. Last night instead of reading the Sunday readings in advance you were dealing with a whiny toddler, or teenager. Your mother or father is sick in a different state. Your team is playing this morning and you are concerned about the performance of the quarterback. The person next to you has a cough. The family behind you is struggling this week. It can be very hard to pay attention at Mass.
Recently, my husband and I managed to convince some friends and family to watch our 3 small children so we could go house hunting 2 hours away. We are military and are being transferred soon to a new base. We spent all day Saturday looking at homes and were up late talking about our options, needs, wants, location, potential--and yikes we might buy a house!
Sunday morning rolled around and we found ourselves able to go to Mass with, dare I say it, no children! It has been a while since we had this opportunity. And wouldn't you know, even without all my usually reasons to not pay attention or adequately absorb the liturgy, I still couldn't pay very good attention! I found myself distracted by the house hunt. Then it was thoughts of how the kids were doing back home. Back to the anxiety of the home-buying process. Eventually I started chastising myself for not paying attention. Which led to a cycle of "what are we going to do about a house...pay attention!...I hope the kids are behaving this morning...why aren't you listening!...etc."
I realized (when I should have been focusing on praying for those around me receiving Communion), that even without the kids I still managed to distract myself nearly the same amount they do. At least my distraction was quiet though, right? Brownie points? Nope.
Disciplining Our Thoughts for Advent
I have seen many people doing something in November called "Planksgiving." Perhaps you have heard of it, it's been going around the past few Novembers. Basically, you start November 1 doing 20 seconds of planking and using that time to be thankful for someone or something in your life. Each day you increase the time spent, working up to 3 full minutes by the end of the month.
I would like to propose a similar idea for Advent. There are many Advent themes for the 4 weeks. Many people may be familiar with the weekly themes of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. I did a little digging and really responded to the traditional Carmelite weekly themes: Waiting, Accepting, Journeying and Birthing. I like how they are active words. Here's my discipline proposal.
Starting the first day of Advent (November 27), set a timer for 30 seconds. Yes, a timer. It keeps you honest without distracting yourself by staring at the second hand tick down. Close your eyes and slowly repeat to yourself "O Come Emmanuel" for the full 30 seconds. If your mind wanders, gently bring yourself back to that phrase. Be intentional about each word. Do the same the following day, but for 35 seconds. Continue in this manner throughout Advent until you have built up your "thought discipline muscles" to an impressive 2 minutes and 30 seconds (See table below for times and phrases). Finish on Christmas morning with the song of the angels: "Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace to people of good will." See if you can stretch yourself all the way to 3 minutes.
It may not seem like much, but I already know I will be surprised by how hard this is going to be. One of the main purposes of this exercises is to help us recognize just how much we have going on in our brains and how challenging it can be to truly stop and focus on one thing. Advent is about preparing ourselves for the coming of Jesus. Yet every day we are surrounded, bombarded even, by lights, tinsel, songs, sales, presents, "I wants," charity drives, donations, parties and service opportunities. Many of these are good ways to prepare for Christ's birth. Others are more secular and anticipate the event we are awaiting. Regardless, they all have the potential to occupy our thoughts, cloud our vision and generally distract us during the precious 4 Sundays of Advent. Learning to train ourselves to focus intently and with purpose can help us not only hear the message/Scripture/prayers of the Mass, but internalize them and most of all, remember them past the church parking lot.
Do you want to increase your capacity for prayer or are trying to figure out just how prayer can fit into your busy life? Please consider signing up for my Advent Reflections on my blog, Daily Graces. These prayer experiences are brief but I hope effective. I am excited to share these with all of you.
Copyright Kate Taliaferro 2016
Image: Wikimedia Commons
About the Author
Kate Taliaferro is an Air Force wife and mom of 6. She has a Masters in Religious Education and tries to find God's presence in all parts of her day, be it cooking, cleaning or just the everyday ordinary. She enjoys homeschooling, stitching crafts and finding cheerios between the couch cushions. She blogs at Daily Graces.